What boosts credibility, builds reputation and helps prospective students feel comfortable? You might say staff, the cafeteria, or campus events. And all of those play a role, but we’re talking about an element that’s likely to impact a student long before they ever meet a faculty member or step foot on campus. In fact, this aspect of your institution will likely represent a student’s first encounter with your school. We’re talking about digital user experience.
“Good UX is felt more than seen,” says Jessie King, senior interaction designer/developer with Collegis Education. “It’s like when you’ve invited someone into your home. If they feel good, they’ll want to spend more time.”
Most people consider first how their organization’s website looks. But what’s more powerful than appearance is functionality. How easily information is located signals to users that the site is worth their time.
What’s more, Google reported in 2016 that higher-ed mobile-search was up +14% year over year (YoY) and desktop/tablet search was down -8% YoY. (See our article here.) But when budgets are tight, how do you know where to begin in order to upgrade your digital experiences to suit a mobile-first audience?
One helpful thing to understand is that if you are seeking assistance with web design, not all vendors offer user experience analysis and design. It might depend on the type of expertise they have on staff, or it might depend on your budget. It’s possible that a user experience designer will give the work a friendly once-over, but college sites serve a lot of audiences. And each audience has complex questions that get into admissions, registration, programs, cost, alumni services and more.
So, is engaging a user experience expert a necessity or a luxury? Can some teams take a do-it-yourself approach?
Your prospective students will tell you. Online audiences in general are easily flustered. It’s the little details that make or break their experience. If a site doesn’t flow logically, is hard to read, and is confusing to navigate, they’ll move on. Often, they’ll abandon your site within three seconds.
What’s most jarring about the three-second statistic is that, intuitively, audiences aren’t just reacting to the digital tools. They’re absorbing a sense of whether they can see themselves at your school. Will the school be comfortable? Will it easy or difficult to get answers to basic questions? Will staff be helpful? The easier it is to use your site, the more likely it is that prospective students will begin to feel comfortable at your school. While you may have confidence in the campus experience your school offers, perceptions are often formed through that digital experience before a prospective student has stepped foot on campus.
King says that what she typically sees on college sites, whether for desktop or mobile, is too much content. Especially if the college is recruiting traditional students out of high school, it’s important to consider that students may already feel overwhelmed by the college selection process.
King recommends breaking information into snippets of step-by-step instructions. Colleges that make the online admissions process as simple as possible tend to get the best results. It can help to use headlines and categories, for example, to provide opportunities for scanning. This helps the user quickly sort through the information until they get to the part that will help them answer their question at that moment.
What users most appreciate in online content are patterns and routines. If you’ve ever been in a country that drives on the left side of the road, you know how disorienting it can be. Users experience online content in similar ways. The more we have to think about things we usually take for granted, the more energy it requires. When pages lack consistency, or symbols aren’t intuitive, users have to decide whether it’s worth it to expend more energy to figure it out, or abandon the site.
But can user experience design be a do-it-yourself task? Probably not. The reason is because good user experience design depends on a complex set of nuanced variables. Learning the craft comes from being able to constantly test and study design approaches and outcomes. The more you test, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better your design is. Also, while there are best practices in user experience design, the field is constantly evolving. As audiences become more intuitive, designers respond.
For example: Today, the “hamburger” website menu icon alerts users to additional menu options. A few years ago, users expected to see “menu” written out and placed in a button along the top of a site. Another key element that is constantly changing? Audience interests. We’ve noticed a rise in Google searches for cost-related information in connection with higher ed. As audience interests shift, it’s important to respond by making that information easier to find.
How often should colleges review their UX?
“It depends on your goals,” King says. “If being trendy isn’t important, then you don’t need to do it as often. But,” she adds, “students today are incredibly tech savvy. They have big expectations for ease and comfort online. Ideally, a college’s digital tools will continue to be easy to use once a student has enrolled.” Think of registration, alerts for a last-minute opening in a popular course, accounts payable and advising.
It’s a good idea to get a professional “tune-up” on your digital user experience. In order to determine how often and in what areas, we recommend tracking a number of metrics that can indicate when it’s time for an update, including the following:
Key metrics to watch:
- Conversions — are users getting to the next step in the process online?
- Form completions
- Length of time to complete tasks
- Number of people abandoning tasks